Advent II, 2019
Our son called the other day to tell us we were going to be grandparents! Gosh, the wedding was only a month ago, that was fast!.
Actually, they adopted a 3-year old rescue dog. This week he shared with me that it is a timid little guy that prefers his crate floor to blankets and he cowers a good bit. Stuart speculated that his past was full of neglect and harsh treatment.
What a shame. Three years of being forgotten, left alone, and perhaps beaten. Stuart and Anna have their work cut out for them to rehabilitate Otter, and teach him about love in the world.
Imagine if a child were raised as Otter was, without a sense of being loved. Imagine an environment where a child is never given a second chance when they make a mistake. Imagine every opportunity that child has in life being crushed because of a past wrong. Imagine if every parent, grandparent, teacher, coach, or employer along the way refused to grant the child any break after mistakes made. Imagine that everywhere you turn, you heard John the Baptist proclaim you part of a brood of vipers!
Victor Hugo imagined this story almost 200 years ago when he wrote Les Miserable. Marked by his theft of bread some 19-years before, paroled Jean Valjean is hounded from town to town, seen only as a criminal and not given the chance to rebuild his life.
That fictional hardship plays out in real life all over our country today. The reality of this harshness is brought into view in the story of Shon Hopwood. Hopwood is a law professor at Georgetown. But before he got there, he dropped out of college when an injury ended his athletic career and soon found his way to robbing banks. Convicted of five armed robberies, Hopwood spent a decade and a half in prison. In prison he graduated college, became known as a jailhouse lawyer and won case reviews by the Supreme Court.
As he tells his remarkable story, Hopwood notes that he never once heard the word rehabilitation spoken during his incarceration. “We were constantly told explicitly and implicitly that we were garbage. Worthless trash. Nothing about our lives mattered except that we deserved punishment.”
There are 2.1 million people in the U.S. prison system, 37% African-American males, three times their percentage in the population. This has wrecked a generation of black men. The use of mandatory sentencing laws has created a huge underclass of convicts and ex-convicts. As Hopwood notes, “It is important to pay a penalty” for criminal activity. “But relegating people to second-class citizenship for the rest of their lives is simply wrong.”
What Hopwood meant by “second-class” is the collateral punishment that stems from incarceration. A felony conviction, even for drug possession or stolen property, bars all kinds of good people from ever being able to rebuild their lives. Ex-cons are lucky if they gain employment at a wage above the poverty line. They are regularly denied student loans, college admission, housing, food stamps, a driver’s license and twenty-one states deny felons the right to vote.
And it gets worse. Lengthy imprisonment severs inmates from vital community ties and valuable family support. Lumping non-violent offenders with violent offenders encourages dangerous and antisocial behavior. When prisoners are released into a life of poverty and debt, where family support may have disintegrated decades earlier, their choice is often homelessness or crime.
From his new perch as a professor at Georgetown, Hopwood seeks to establish channels of mercy grounded in redemption. John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness for vipers to turn away from evil, to repent. Once one has done that, redemption is at hand.
In proclaiming the coming of the Savior, John sees us all as a brood of vipers. So he implores us to turn toward a second chance in life. There is a rich history of second chances in scripture. Moses and David, both of whom were murderers, received second chances in life. Jesus, whom John proclaims is coming, organized much of his ministry around lifting up people whom others had convicted and condemned, offering them a second chance in God’s loving embrace.
Repentance does not mean feeling sorry about what you have done wrong or guilty about your past. Repentance is a basic reorientation of your life. In repentance a person turns from ne framework of meaning to another. From one way of thinking about self. others, God and life to a compelling vision of life shared with all.
On this Sunday when our focus is on the joy found in love, we recognize that it is God’s love for the world that has given our brood of vipers a second chance. And only with such a second chance are we able to go on.
Today we celebrate God’s love and welcome not only as we hear John’s call for baptism, but also in Sophie’s baptism. In the joy she finds in baptism, we are compelled to share that joy as we participate with her and her family.
Central to our participation is recognizing God’s love for all. That as Jesus came to save the lost,that includes those incarcerated. Prison reform is one of the few remaining issues that gets support across the fractured divides of our republic. Voters in Oklahoma, with one of the nation’s highest rates of incarceration, approved a plan to change some non-violent crimes like drug possession and low-level property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Soon, some 3,500 prisoners will be released and 60,000 former prisoners will get their records changed. Legislators realized that high incarceration is expensive and it wasn’t decreasing the crime rate.
Recently the POJ awarded a grant for churches to work with the youth of Bon Air Correctional facility to continue the long-standing ministry of Bon Air church in caring for incarcerated youth.
The Marshall Project, an online journal devoted to a focus on criminal justice, published a story about an art project in a California prison. French artist JR collaborated with prisoners, correctional officers and victims of crime to create a massive, ephemeral mural on the roof of the prison. It featured the faces of those who participated. It enabled a group of people to work together who ordinarily would not have.
Barrett Fadden, one of the incarcerated men involved said: “As a direct result of JR’s project here, I have seen men change their lives for the better, two of whom I am now sponsoring through the twelve-step program. I think the biggest misconception about people in prison is that we are somehow less human, and beyond helping. But we are not worthless, we have value and we can change.”:
Such stories remind us that all people have value. And with care, compassion and love, they can change. John the Baptist calls us to repent, assuming both these truths. He demonstrates God’s belief in both the value of everyone, and our potential to be transformed for good. Advent invites us to confess, fully, and without fear, knowing that repentance leads to merciful forgiveness with the coming of Jesus Christ. Part of our repentance must be to show the love of God to all, even in the dark corners of our prison system, where second chances and the light of Christ’s healing love is sorely needed